State of The American Newspaper
In Lord Thomson’s Realm
In small towns across America, the Canadian-born chain struggles with its penny-pinching legacy.
By William Prochnau
A little more than 100 miles northwest of the Washington Beltway, in the fishhook of western Maryland, Breakneck Hill looks down somberly on Interstate 68 where the highway cuts through one of the first low passes into Appalachia. Neither the hill, a 1,872-foot sentinel for the mountains ahead, nor the crushed-granite slash of the humpback pass is likely to occasion a postcard home. But they constitute a powerful natural barrier. It is here that you pass out of the East and into the rest of the country. It is here that you also pass out of the orbit of Washington and all its inside-the-Beltway dither--out of the orbit, for that matter, of the Washington Post. On one side, the Post still sells a handful of copies. On the other, it effectively sells none.
William Prochnau, a former national reporter for the Washington Post, is a contributing editor of Vanity Fair.
At a pass-through like this you also leave behind the world of modern mega-journalism and all the attendant hullabaloo that has relegated the media to the level of used-car salesmen and congressmen in the eyes of the American public. The gentleman pumping his 50 cents into the newsrack in the town ahead is not concerned that his local paper is scandal-driven at the expense of "real news." Packs and paparazzi are not issues to him, made-up columns and borrowed quotes and unnamed sources hardly on his mind. You are leaving the orbit of reporters who "analyze" their own stories on nightly TV at fees that would cover the salaries of a couple of their colleagues--and entering one where Kris Baker rises before the sun to walk the cops beat in Logansport, Indiana, at $9.36 an hour.
The other side is not all Norman Rockwell.
Instead, the issues shift to salaries like Baker's while absentee owners often take 30 cents--or more--out of every dollar that comes in to newspapers once locally owned. The nitty-gritty issues are "advertorials," as one reporter calls them--buy an ad for your new hamburger stand and we'll run a story about it, too. About ads that have invaded what some consider the sanctity of page one. About the merging of editorial purity into marketing and selling--tearing down the walls, they call it in the business. About a dozen ways to milk every last dime out of the "product." Getting married? Let us sell you a wedding announcement. Dead? Let us sell your kids an obit.
For the purposes of this journey the little hump in I-68 creates one other significant barrier--the almost impenetrable wall between two small-town newspaper monopolies, the Hagerstown Herald Mail, owned by the Indiana-based Schurz group, and the Thomson chain's Cumberland Times-News, nestled down in the hollow just ahead. It creates that invaluable monopoly turf.
Old Roy Thomson never visited this place. But, as the penultimate newspaper monopolist, he would have loved it. The mountainous geography around Cumberland pens in the kind of territorial stronghold out of which he mined one of the least known but most astounding newspaper fortunes--and showed others how to do it, too.
Thomson was one of the most unlikely newspaper barons in the checkered history of a colorful business. A Canadian, he was halfway through his life before he ever dipped his fingers into printers' ink. A backwoods traveling salesman, he had peddled auto parts, radios, refrigerators and washing machines in the gold fields of northern Ontario, barely staving off bankruptcy. He was almost 40 years old, at the height of the Great Depression, when he first dusted the cobwebs off a used printing press in Timmins, Ontario. For $200 down he began an empire knowing nothing about journalism except that, as he later put it, news was "the stuff you separate the ads with."
Thomson's formula was so simple others soon mimicked it: Carve a lot out of a little. He scooped up small-town dailies and dished out the least costly product he could sell. One early shell-shocked publisher, sitting in on the first meeting after selling to Thomson Newspapers, watched as the new budgeteers ordered that newsroom pencils be issued one at a time. "God help us if they ever discover there are two sides to a piece of toilet paper," he muttered. A modern-day Thomson editor marveled, "Roy Thomson could squeeze the last drop of copper out of every penny." In 1993 even Thomson's chief executive officer, quoted in one of the chain's few respected papers, Toronto's Globe and Mail, conceded that the company penny-pinched its way to "cruddy" newspapers. Quality was never a hallmark of a Thomson sheet--and employees of family-owned local papers blanched when they heard the Thomsons were coming.
Still, at its height in the early 1990s the empire owned 233 small and medium-sized newspapers (daily and weekly) in the United States and Canada and another 151 in the British Isles. Along the way, the old man had picked up a title that would have been the envy of any media baron: Lord Thomson of Fleet. Today his publicity-shy son, Kenneth, who runs the far-flung Thomson Corp. as it expands aggressively into cyberspace, is said to be the seventh-richest man in the world, his net worth last tallied at $14.4 billion.
This story will take you on a journey through small-town America and to some of its newspapers--first down the hill into Cumberland; then deeper into Appalachia to Fairmont, West Virginia, and the Times-West Virginian; and up into middle America to Logansport, Indiana, and the Pharos-Tribune. Mesa, Arizona, which once would have fit the group nicely but is now a booming suburb of Phoenix and home of the Tribune, will be the anomaly on the journey.
All belong to Thomson. But the trip is not in search of "cruddy" newspapers. Most small-town papers, once family-owned stalwarts with a mystical standing in the American way of life, have been gobbled up by chains now. It is not easy to tell a Thomson paper from its small-town neighbor up the road. Nor is Thomson the corporation it was just a few years ago. It has--and this has raised some eyebrows about its confidence in the future of the commodity that made it rich--reduced its daily newspaper holdings by two-thirds and moved into the ethereal realm of the Internet. So tumultuous is the upheaval that one of the newspapers visited--the West-Virginian--was spun off in a trade with Hollinger International Inc. before this article could be published. All told, Thomson's newspaper profile in the United States consists of 50 dailies, a mere shadow of its former self.
Some analysts say Thomson is spooked. Thomson executives insist they are in the game to stay but tired of being a "laughingstock" and will make money with journalistic quality in the future. This trip will help you be the judge of that. It is surely a new idea.
At the bottom of the hill in Cumberland, Lance White, the managing editor of the Times-News, is grumpy. The 4:45 p.m. news meeting in his little office in the corner of the newsroom is almost over and, for White, it is a weak news day. The Middle East is coming apart again, President Clinton is wallowing in further developments, and the best White can muster is a cleanup story about a three-day-old unseasonable snowstorm.
"We're heavy on wire," he says.
"Letdown after the storm, I guess," shrugs his city editor, Debbie Meyer.
White grunts. His is the lament of almost every small-town editor in the country. He is understaffed and the news formula for hometown papers now is local, local and more local. The Middle East and Clinton stories will be the good raw meat of the high-powered news meeting an hour from now 143 miles away at the Post. Not here. "They've got TV for that," White says of his readers. "It's not our role."
Still, reluctantly, White yields today on the Middle East. "We'll lead with it," he instructs his night news editor, John Smith. "But I want a four-column package on the snow, above the fold." He kicks Clinton inside to page two. "Do we have an ad on page one?"
Thomson's president, Stuart Garner, a Brit seasoned in the hurly-burly of Fleet Street, where front-page ads are commonplace, recently opened up his U.S. covers to allow ads stripped along the bottom--at prime rates. The big takers have been car dealers and jewelry stores. The move raised a stink in the industry and at least briefly reinforced the image problems Garner says he is trying to correct. Editor & Publisher headlined that Thomson had broken an "unspoken taboo" against front-page display advertising in U.S. papers.
The news meeting is breaking up and Meyer makes one last bid: "We have the municipal election in Friendsville coming up Tuesday. This is just about the last chance."
"What about the thumbnails?" White asks.
"Got one," Meyer replies. "Not the other."
"Well, that's that, I guess," White waves her off. "Can't run a thumbnail sketch of the mayor if we don't have one of his opponent."
Smith tries to suppress a half-grimace, half-smile. Somebody has screwed up. Profiles of Mayor Spencer Schlosnagle of the nearby hamlet of Friendsville, population 611, are hard to pass up. The mayor's shenanigans are so notorious that he and Friendsville have been profiled nationally. Schlosnagle has been convicted twice for indecent exposure and just keeps on getting elected.
With a circulation of 32,000, medium-large for Thomson, the Cumberland Times-News has an editorial staff of 32. But that includes part-timers and clerks. White's core staff, in addition to his editors, is nine reporters, three photographers and four sportswriters. It's a thin stretch, especially in a place like Cumberland. The paper's downtown office is eight miles from the Pennsylvania border and walking distance to West Virginia. Consequently, just the governmental jurisdictions that a good paper should cover--three states, a half-dozen counties, several towns and municipalities, many school districts--far outstrip the staff's means. So much so that White no longer covers meetings of any kind on a regular basis.
White, 45, has been in Cumberland four years. He joined Thomson with only mild trepidation. Born in a farm town in Illinois, his career history is all too typical. Small-town editors lead gypsy lives. They move around like ball players in the minors. He has been with two papers that went out from under him and came here from the Tribune-Democrat in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. "I didn't have many qualms," he says of his move. And he has had few regrets. He understands the game. It is bottom-line. White says he has had virtually no editorial interference, or second-guessing, from the corporation. But the bottom line, of course, affects everything.
In early 1997 White and every editor in the chain had a mean bottom-line decision to make about Thomson's Washington bureau, a 14-person operation that dispensed localized federal news throughout the group. Up till that time the cost of the bureau had been carried by the corporation. Suddenly, Thomson announced that the costs would be allocated on a paper-by-paper assessment schedule. The announcement was made after approval of each paper's annual budget. The bottom line was already in and the proposed assessment for Cumberland was $21,042.38.
White waves his hand toward the little newsroom outside his office. Near the center pole his police reporter, 49-year-old Jeff Alderton, is clearing off his desk to make room for John Smith, who has just emerged from the news meeting. Alderton, who works days, and John Smith, who works nights, share a desk and make the handoff at 5. An Edna Buchanan book occupies the upper right-hand drawer. It stays there, a claim staked.
"What was I going to do?" White asks. The assessment was not much shy of Alderton's annual salary. "Trade a reporter for three or four stories a month out of Washington?"
White did what half the Thomson editors did immediately, with many others following soon thereafter. And what the corner-cutting corporation clearly wanted its editors to do, being saddled, as it saw itself, with a $1.4 million Washington budget that it no longer wanted to pay. White pulled his paper out and the bureau began a fast crumble.
The next morning in Cumberland the fading snowstorm is boxed four columns above the fold, with photo; the Middle East leads, one column on the right; and Clinton's problems have edged their way back into a bottom-of-the-cover strip (no ad today). Slow indeed.
In the newsroom Jeff Alderton dons a sporty topcoat and hat, steps out the door of the Times-News building onto Baltimore Street, hikes over the bridge at Wills Creek and strides uphill toward the historic Allegheny County Courthouse. This is a town that can say without hyperbole that George Washington slept here. He was stationed here during the French and Indian War and fought the only battle he led before the Revolution. He lost.
Alderton is as mild-mannered as Clark Kent and Cumberland dapper, wearing a tightly clipped mustache and looking every inch the cops reporter. Walking the street with him becomes a nonstop greeting. Hi, Lew, he nods. Hi, Jeff.
Alderton is a hometown boy, having graduated in the same high school class as the police chief and the Times-News publisher, Ronald J. Monahan. A veteran of 18 years at the paper, Alderton was a late starter. He began working there full time at 31, the newspaper becoming his escape into a new and exotic life. Until then, he had been running a local convenience store. The circumstances give him a special reverence for his job and a clarity about its traditions that could not have been better instilled at Columbia. The circumstances also give him the frustrations of romantics in an impure world.
The walk is at my request, the bestowal of a professional courtesy. He doesn't walk his beat much anymore, and that clearly causes him some chagrin. His official title is public safety and general assignment reporter. That means he covers the cops in all the jurisdictions mentioned above. He also covers the courts and the fire departments. Plus general assignment. In the other world, it would have been as if someone had told him to cover the Middle East and Africa and do features out of Europe in his spare time. Filing twice a day, of course.
Before leaving the office, Alderton showed me the latest technological advance in cops coverage. A fax machine. He shook his head slightly. Edna Buchanan remained shut away tightly in the desk drawer, unable to see this besmirching of her craft.
For years he did his job the way thousands of cop-shop reporters had before him, hoofing it to the station each morning and pawing through the wire basket of scrawled, often misspelled police reports written in the graphic lingo of cops describing their town's unseen life at night. And like generations of reporters before him--only the truly and sadly overprivileged few could avoid a stint on cops--he always expected the next sheet to produce the gem: the delicious details on the holier-than-thou city councilman who had wrapped himself around a blonde and his Chevy around a telephone pole in last night's revel.
But now there are too many rap sheets for one reporter--800 reports a week from the police alone, he says. Not to mention the fire departments and the hospitals and the courts. A fax machine, a small mechanical abomination delivering up police-selected reports on departmental press-release stationery, written like little news stories by a public information officer. He shakes his head again at the very thought of it.
"I'm not naive enough to think they give me the whole deal," he says of the police who now choose the reports to send him. "They do their editing, too. It's not the best scenario." It's the bottom line.
The Times-News is not an unusually timid paper. It runs all domestic-violence arrests. It has a policy of running all driving-under-the-influence arrests and appears to stick by it. A state delegate recently turned the town upside down trying to get her grandson's DUI killed--to no avail. A local official sideswiped two cars after an extra nip or two and read about it the next day. Makes a lot of people mad. Small-town newspapering is not metropolitan newspapering; it's up close and sweaty. White takes it for granted. "If the publisher gets arrested tonight, we'll run it. On page one." Then he grins. "Suppose that means me, too."
Still, beat reporters, even mild-mannered ones, run on angst. Even in a monopoly town the anxiety claws at the gut with the fear that the guy from the radio station, the woman from TV, will get it first. Alderton is no exception, and one day he could take it no longer. He headed into the managing editor's office and burst out that he'd been given so much ground to cover that no one could possibly do the job properly. White, with his immutable budget, could only reply, "Well, that's the way it's going to be." Alderton was so frustrated he asked his boss to walk the beat with him and see for himself. White said okay. But he never went. And Alderton never asked again. "There was just nothing that could be done," he says now.
When I first saw Lance White a few weeks earlier, he was building a house of cards at Disney World.
The occasion was Thomson Newspapers' 1998 Readership Development Conference, the kind of meeting that seems to be the wave of the future--or more accurately, the wave of the present, even the past. The newspaper business forever sees the Gauls at the gate.
There is a wonderful story about Roy Thomson working up to a full head of steam almost a half-century ago. At a 1952 meeting of Canadian Press, Canada's wire service, a fellow publisher wallowed in a long lament about the future of their endangered business. "Circulation is down..TV is killing us..radio newscasts steal our stories..labor demands are endless..costs are rising..advertising revenue is falling." According to Braddon Russell in the biography "Roy Thomson of Fleet Street," the gloomy discourse continued for 10 minutes before Thomson spoke. "Want to sell?" he asked. He owned 21 papers at the time.
All these years later, the lament is louder than ever. Nobody reads in a visual age..cable TV will kill what commercial television did not..the Internet sounds the death knell..downhold and downsize... Until you read the profit statements--20, 25 percent and more, for papers large and small.
Thomson was the first to utter the classic phrase about discovering "a license to print money." In truth, he was talking about a television station and only over the years did the words inevitably get bent to the printing-press business that made him wealthy. But even in the raw avarice of the '90s, the numbers are staggering. Just to be sure, I asked Frank Wood, the publisher of the Times-West Virginian, if his paper's 28 percent profit margin means what I think it means. "Oh, I think so," he grinned. A dollar in the front door, 28 cents out the back. A funeral for newspapering? It would draw more stretch limos than lined up for Elvis.
Maybe that's why no one saw irony when a professional motivator had 68 Thomson editors and 65 Thomson circulation managers--"circulators," they are called--building houses of cards in the meeting room just up the street from the Magic Kingdom.
The purpose of the Readership Development Conference was to get editors and circulators working shoulder to shoulder in the higher interest of selling those newspapers. So, teetering at every table was a playing-card skyscraper, held in place by girders of paper clips and, most of all, a new togetherness. "See!" exclaimed MaryAnn McWilliams, who bills herself as a "newspaper improver" utilized by Gannett, Times Mirror and dozens of others. "See what you can do by working together!"
If the editors felt ridiculous, they had no idea how lucky they were. At other conventions, according to a Thomson house organ, executives "dropped eggs from balconies, jumped out of trees and haggled for beads and poker chips." All this presumably stone sober. Such mysteries in the ways of molding minds and moods have become part of the corporate culture of a new age. Rumors ran rampant recently that the new motivators had the editors of one of the nation's most powerful newspapers running around with lampshades on their heads in the interest of reducing their egos to size and bringing them into the real world, wherever that is.
As for tearing down the walls between the newsroom and circulation, Thomson Newspapers had made sure that its editors and circulators came to Orlando well prepared. Before arriving, the conferees spent several days in role exchanges at home--editors riding the motor routes and taking the "kicks" from angry subscribers, circulation managers sitting in on news meetings and page one planning. The pivotal panel session was called "They Lived to Tell the Tale." The opening comments from Harry Brown, the director of circulation from the Winnipeg Free Press, went right to the point. "I would like to say to my editorial colleagues: Don't be afraid about losing your virginity, don't worry about selling your soul."
Then the panelists bared all. At the Times Recorder in Zanesville, Ohio, Managing Editor Kim Margolis let circulator Todd Jones make all the decisions one week. Jones put a sewer story on page three and ran a photo of naked mannequins. Circulation went up.
At the Daily Times in Salisbury, Maryland, editorial's preference for a Clinton pronouncement about telling no one to lie gave way to a local auto accident. In Kokomo, Indiana, according to the Kokomo Tribune's single-copy manager, David Johnson, the experiment "changed the culture in the newsroom." Johnson told about an old newsie staring him down: "We ain't ever going to let you into those meetings." The news hand was wrong. "At first it was like walking into a freezer," Johnson recalled. "Now I walk through the newsroom and they ask me what is doing well and what isn't."
"How Far Do You Go to Sell Newspapers?" highlighted the afternoon seminars, with subheaded questions: "Does a newspaper have to be 'serious' to be taken seriously? Does 'serious' have to be dull?" The organizers put together an inspired grouping: Terry Quinn, editor of the Daily Record in Glasgow, Scotland; Carl Sessions Stepp, a journalism professor from the University of Maryland (and AJR's senior editor); and Alan Geere, executive editor of Thomson's new entry in the suburban field, the Tribune of suburban Phoenix.
Quinn, who claims the highest household penetration level of any newspaper in Europe, has already told the conference that circulation and editorial are "joined at the hip" at his place. Now he describes a phenomenon more common than most newspaper editors are inclined to admit, although it has twists not familiar to the assembled Thomson crowd. "I live a very isolated life," he is saying, "driven to work every day in a limousine..to very pleasant surroundings. People bring me food." He can't get a sense of the real world from his journalists; they, too, have isolated themselves. But his circulators are out in the field, taking abuse but meeting folks who know what is right and wrong in his newspaper. Listening to his circulators brings him into the real world.
The Anglo influence at this conference is omnipresent. Stuart Garner presides, injecting trendy, sometimes gimmicky, Fleet Street ideas into the tired Thomson formula he wants to change. The corporation moved its headquarters from Canada to Stamford, Connecticut, in 1994, but Kenneth Thomson, still chairman of the board at 75, won't leave Toronto. Even the Canadian editors carry themselves with a somewhat lordly manner, some of them running larger and far more nationally relevant papers than their U.S. counterparts.
Geere, 43, is also British. Garner's paladin, he is a self-described hired gun brought in to get the Mesa operation up and moving aggressively in its suburban war against the Arizona Republic. An immensely joyous man, he runs on a mix of adrenaline and ideas, good and bad, both of which will become yesterday's news without cheers or tears, a new set having by then erupted. He is here until December 31, 1999, when his work visa expires. His only regret after a year in the U.S. is that people find him intimidating. ("Everywhere I go I am surrounded by a sea of mildly antagonistic faces," he tells me.)
Now he exults about his Mesa experience: "We have fun day and night! We're not wrapped up in winning awards! We used to be a fancy-pants newspaper that tried to be like the Washington Post." But no more, he says. "I don't want to be a guiding light for society." Recently, he sent a young reporter out to interview moviegoers emerging from the political satire "Wag the Dog." All went well until an elderly man, three times the interviewer's age, began chasing the reporter down the street, scolding, "You're the problem! You're the problem!"
Meanwhile, the professor is lecturing. Stepp tweaks current wisdom about newspapers that try to be "the reader's best friend." Then he adds, "The day is not far off when newspapers will have to pump much more into their newsrooms."
So far Garner, as host, has been mostly rah-rah with his troops, a prerequisite of leadership at Thomson Newspapers. It is not easy to constantly be the butt of the worst of the fish-wrap jokes. "We're now being talked about in this industry big-time," Garner has pronounced. "Believe me. You are now part of something very successful. Be proud of it."
But now Stepp jars Garner to his feet and, from the audience, the Brit complains that journalism schools are not turning out the kind of graduates he wants to hire. "Should news groups run their own training schools as a replacement for journalism schools?" he asks. Garner is not the first news executive to complain that journalism schools don't prepare reporters for the real thing, but the idea of training schools--essentially trade schools--is very British. The Brits here find American newspapers mostly dull and American reporters mostly pompous and lazy. Garner is no exception.
Stepp temporizes: "Maybe some of both." Then he rises to the bait. "I shouldn't say this," he says, "but it's not us [in academia] who are putting out the dull newspapers."
Afterward, Garner approaches Stepp with half an olive branch. "I'm sorry to invite you down here and then put that to you that way," he says. Stepp shrugs and Garner continues. "But some of our editors are very upset about it. They just have to retrain everybody."
Later, in the hallway, I ask Garner what that exchange was all about. He takes to the subject with renewed passion.
"Well, I am thinking about it," he says. "Take high school graduates, or young people from 18 to 22, and put them into a training school for six months. The Thomson Editorial Training Center. That's what we did in Britain. We taught them, but they mostly learned by doing. We taught Pitman shorthand until they could take 100 words a minute. We taught them how the cops work, how the city works. A heavy chunk of it was on media law. We had 22 laws restricting what journalists could and do write. Defamation. But we didn't teach libel, nothing on libel. Or ethics. We didn't teach anything at all about ethics. I imagine old Carl there spends a year on that."
Briefly Garner sidetracks to his first job under a "thoroughly unpleasant" boss who turned out to be a "tough but empathetic mentor," a legendary British editor named John Brown Lee. "We got our pay each week in a brown envelope, cash, and the first week he shouted my surname and tossed my envelope so it landed on the floor between us. 'Get it on your hands and knees,' he said. 'That's all you're worth.' "
Terry Quinn is listening with a big smile. "And that has been Stuart's management philosophy ever since," he interjects.
Garner glares a grin back that says, Quinn, this outsider standing next to me better turn out to have a good sense of humor. But Garner is on a roll now and he pushes on.
"The bottom line was that we got young, enthusiastic reporters who were excited and gave us what we wanted. Now journalism schools..." He makes a disparaging face. "Kids are coming in with their heads filled with the wrong stuff. I have a nephew, 17, desperate to become a journalist. 'What should I do?' he asked me. I said, 'Go to Serbo-Croatia if you want. Go to college if you want. But don't do journalism.' They come out of there writing learned treatises on women's studies or something..social issues, politics, and.. liberal, whew.
"A professor in England came up to me one time and said, 'Isn't it a shame that they are all writing about the royal family and Diana?' My God. The only people you are interesting is the readers. Young people come out of journalism school feeling they are doing God's work, that they have a mission to save the world.
"I'm not against civilizing reporters. But as a news editor"--unlike most of Thomson's top executives, Garner spent most of his career in the newsroom--"I had to expect every reporter who worked for me to do three stories a day. Editors complain to me that they want more staff. I look at the record and I say, 'Look, only one story a day.' How can they want more reporters?"
It rained six inches in three days in Orlando. But a good time was had by all.
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